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The Nation at a Point of Inflection

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael Abels
December 23, 2016

As a country, we have experienced what many believe to be the most politically and socially corrosive presidential campaign in American history. The dominance of electronic communications has allowed the vitriol of demeaning and divisive politics to be deeply infused throughout American society. The outcome of that campaign sees the nation as sharply divided culturally, politically, and racially as any time since the Civil War.

A campaign slogan from Trump’s campaign was “make America great again.” A foundation of America’s greatness has been the public and private institutions that collectively helped build an exemplary quality of life for those who lived in the United States. However, for decades our political leaders have denigrated our public institutions, resulting in Americans viewing most of our public as well as private organizations with distrust and a lack of confidence. Instead of building on the political, social, institutions which have served as the centerpiece for our quality of life, political leaders have chosen to discredit these institutions.

The outcome of this campaign of destruction is shown by a 2016 Pew Research Center poll that showed only 32 percent of Americans expressed confidence in major American institutions. Disturbingly, less than 50 percent of Americans expressed confidence in the institutions related to religious, educational, governmental, business, criminal justice and media. Only the police and military received a confidence vote from more than 50 percent of Americans, and it is hard to project what FBI Director Comey’s intervention in the presidential campaign is having on the public’s collective confidence for law enforcement.

This lack of confidence in our national institutions served as a platform leading to the victory of the Trump presidential campaign. It should now be expected that the platform of class and racial division espoused in that campaign will be embedded in the policies enacted by the new administration. In this new and radical environment, how should public administrators react? Should it be one of passive acceptance, or instead, proactive advocacy for the values that have made America what it is?

This column argues that public administrators, individually and through professional associations such as ASPA, should be proactive and advocate for three approaches that will help rebuild public confidence, as well as instill public interest based policy at all levels of government. First, ASPA should concentrate on the first principle its’ code of ethics, “Advance the Public Interest.”  As I wrote in the Sept. 23 edition of the PA Times Online, the foundation for public policy should be centered on the collective interests of all citizens and not just the factional interests that wield political and financial power.

abelsThe second platform ASPA should promote is to rebuild the civil service system. Since the enactment of the Pendleton Act, the United States has created one of the finest civil service systems in the world. However, as with our formal institutions, we have structurally and psychologically attacked the civil service system as well as civil servants, while concurrently placing increasing demands on the institutional systems that operate government programs. There has been a discussion about reforming the U. S Civil Service System but mostly centered on a political agenda e.g., making it easier to fire civil servants. But, there are several fundamental issues that need to be addressed. These range from determining effective levels for employee due process, organizing to effectively meet future demands, identifying the proper mix between privatized operations versus traditional government operations, attracting the finest of the millennial generation through pay comparability and reconsidering whether recruitment for federal positions should be decentralized, or moved to a more centralized system that was utilized in the 20th century. A key focus for reform should be to restore pride and honor in being a civil servant. This must begin with a concerted program to stop the political degradation of the civil service system, as well as those who serve the country as civil servants.

The third section of our policy platform should be advocating that President Trump form a nonpartisan citizen’s committee with the mission of identifying common values that guide the citizens of the United States. Members of this committee should evenly represent the full spectrum of American political thought. As part of its mission, this committee would identify factors that have been the catalyst for the social polarization that now engulfs the country and determine steps that we can take to narrow the ideological and social chasm that divides us. The goal for this committee will be to start a process to recognize and then rebuild the nation’s core common values.

Surveying our national landscape, I arrive at the conclusion that we may be at a precipice in our national history. Do we as public administrators passively acquiesce to our current condition of national malaise and accept the decline of the core identity and values that historically represented the United States? Or conversely, do we proactively work to stop the disintegration of our common identity; beginning a process to strengthen our common values and rebuild the institutions through which our quality of life is enhanced?

Author: Michael Abels is a career city manager and retired lecturer in public administration at the University of Central Florida. Email: [email protected]

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